FOOD & DRINK / Balls of fire from Tellicherry: There's more to pepper than meets the tongue. A guide by Geraldene Holt

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THE VITAL question at last weekend's Oxford Food Symposium was whether spices were originally used solely to mask the flavour of tainted food, or valued in their own right for their taste and aroma. An encyclopaedic exhibition of spices, herbs and other extraordinary flavours helped provide the answer, as symposiasts sniffed, tasted and in most cases sighed with pleasure over the flavours of the past. In terms of sheer exoticism, the Oxford event put Istanbul's spice market in the shade.

Yet few of these alluring flavours are still used in the West, now that the chemical tastes of the food industry hold sway. Some natural, unadulterated flavourings do survive - such as pepper, which continues to be the most widely used spice in the world.

When Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper, he surely chose peppercorns rather than members of the capsicum family such as the fleshy sweet pepper or the blistering chilli. The trailing pepper plant, Piper nigrum, grows through trees and is trained over wooden frames to a height of 30ft; thus the peppercorn is also known as the vine pepper. Its strings of small flowers, measuring 4-6 inches in length, ripen into green- and, later, red-skinned berries. Fresh or dried, these produce the world's most valuable spice - though no longer the most costly. Pepper's warm, woody aroma and pungent taste complement both sweet and savoury foods. It seasons meat, fish and vegetables and enhances the flavour of strawberries, pears, pineapple and green-fleshed melons.

The youngest and most sweet-scented peppercorns are the fresh green berries. Supplies from Thailand are increasingly available in supermarkets here (Waitrose, Safeway). The soft berries are sold still attached to their stem, and will keep, wrapped in a plastic bag in the salad compartment of a refrigerator, for 3-4 weeks. Or store green peppercorns - to their mutual benefit - in a bottle of vodka.

Green peppercorns are beautifully fragrant but not assertively hot, which makes them versatile in cooking. Add them whole to creamy sauces, and use them crushed in savoury butters or dressings for salads. Or cook fish and white meat 'au poivre vert'. Simply crush half a teaspoon of green peppercorns per person and press the mixture into both sides of a fish steak - cod, salmon or halibut - brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with grated lemon zest and a little salt. Set aside for an hour for the flavours to mature, then grill, bake or shallow-fry.

If you can't find fresh green peppercorns look for small jars or tins of brined ones which should be rinsed before use. Freeze-dried green peppercorns can be softened in warm water; the dehydrated kind should be crushed in a mortar or milled in the same way as black or white peppercorns.

The finest black peppercorns, and the largest, are labelled Tellicherry, after the port on the Malabar coast of South-west India where Piper nigrum is a native plant. Green peppercorns are picked and left to ferment for a few days - which blackens the skin - and are then sun-dried until bone hard.

In this form they make a manageable cargo. Roman cookery depended on pepper as a seasoning and preservative and the insistent European demand for pepper in medieval dishes such as pepper sauce and spiced beef caused piracy and looting on the spice routes. At one time peppercorns themselves became a form of currency - hence 'a peppercorn rent'. And during the 15th century the wealth of Venice was founded on its protected trade in the spice.

The long shelf-life of dried peppercorns is due to their hard outer shell which must be crushed or milled to release its slightly resinous and appetising aroma. So the mill-wielding waiters in the Italian trattoria are performing a genuine service when they dust your dish of pasta. For ready-ground black pepper loses its aroma in minutes - tired ground pepper is more useful for keeping cats out of plant tubs than for eating. In marinades and long-cooked dishes pepper is best added whole so the peppercorns soften during the cooking and slowly release their flavour.

White peppercorns are simply the hot-tasting kernels of black peppercorns. The berries are allowed to ripen on the vines until rust-red; then picked and packed into bags, they are soaked in water to soften the outer skin and make it easier to remove. White peppercorns are valued for their fiery taste and inconspicuous appearance - hardly great culinary virtues, in my view. Though some classically trained chefs still add ground white pepper to pale sauces, domestic cooks may prefer to use milled green pepper for its flavour and looks.

Pink peppercorns, Schinus terebinthifolius, are impostors among peppers. Although they have a light citrus flavour, their chief attribute is their pretty colour, especially when teamed with green peppercorns in a sauce.

In one Oxford Symposium paper, it was said that though pepper excites the blood, it is not addictive. But I wonder. Peppercorns contain an alkaloid, piperine, which acts as an appetite stimulant and a digestive - and also, according to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, small amounts of a hallucinogen, myristicin. When Peter Piper picked his peck of pickled pepper - all 16 pints of it - did he have a serious pepper habit?

PEPPER MILL MIXTURES

HIGHLY AROMATIC PEPPER MIX

2 parts black peppercorns

1 part coriander seed

A well-balanced pepper mixture for meat, fish and vegetables.

MIGNONETTE PEPPER

Equal parts of black and white peppercorns

The name comes from the small muslin bag of mixed spices including black peppercorns, ginger, cloves and cinnamon used to flavour spiced mulled wine in medieval cooking. The term is also applied to white peppercorns crushed until small but not fine.

CINQ BAIES

1 part white peppercorns

1 part dried green peppercorns

1 part pink peppercorns or baies roses

1 part coriander seeds

1 part allspice berries

This mixture of black, white, green and red peppercorns is also known Melange des Iles because vine pepper is grown on the French island of Reunion. An excellent additon to green salad, home-made bread and savoury butters.

QUATRE EPICES

7 parts black peppercorns

1 part ground cloves

1 part ground cinnamon

1 part grated nutmeg

A French spice mixture recommended for seasoning meat dishes and charcuterie. Grind the black pepper and mix with the ground cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Store in a screwtop jar.

(Photograph omitted)

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